Glen Robinson, a high councilor in the Bessemer Alabama Stake, vividly remembers the day when Stake Pres. Samuel Fletcher walked into a meeting and announced: "We're going to create a branch in Ensley."
Ensley is a racially mixed inner-city district near downtown Birmingham. The handful of church members then living there attended one of the well-established wards in other parts of the metropolitan area.Robinson was skeptical, as were many of his fellow high councilors, because he felt there were too few church members in the area. "We thought, `No way; it won't work,'" he said.
The high councilor told this story during the first sacrament meeting in Ensley's sparkling new building, completed the week before Christmas and just 2 1/2 years after the branch's humble beginning.
"But," Robinson continued, with a sweeping gesture directed toward the 100 people who filled the little chapel and adjoining side rooms to capacity, "it sure has worked."
Indeed it has. A branch once small enough to meet in the president's home now has grown to have a home of its own.
The man chosen to be the Ensley Branch's first president is steel worker Clement Biggs. A warm and ebullient man, Pres. Biggs felt hestitant about assuming the position because of a speech impediment and concerns about his own abilities. "I didn't think I was good enough to represent the Lord in such an important way," he reflected.
But when Pres. Biggs accepted the call, the new branch gained a strong leader who has become well-loved and respected by his people.
Pres. Biggs' speech impediment is still there, but now he conducts meetings and speaks powerfully and with confidence . . . and love. "I've really enjoyed this position," he said. "I love being with these people. This is a group of people who love the Lord, and love each other."
That cohesiveness has been needed to help the branch continue to grow through some challenging times.
The path to the eventual construction of Ensley's new meetinghouse also has been strewn with obstacles. After meeting in Pres. Biggs' home for a time, the branch moved to an aging American Legion hall. It had long since outgrown this facility when Pres. Biggs was instructed to look for a site to build a chapel.
Such parcels of property are few in Ensley, and the search was long and frustrating. Finally, an attractive, heavily wooded lot in the heart of Ensley was found, but it had been tied up in estate difficulties for 20 years. "You can't have it," Pres. Biggs said he was told.
But Pres. Biggs felt strongly this was the right place for the building, and after much praying, the legal entanglements were unwound and the property was purchased.
The city of Birmingham then decided it also wanted to buy the property. The city first offered to purchase the lot, then threatened to condemn it and claim it under right of eminent domain.
When local neighborhood leaders heard this, they rallied to the Church's aid. One of them, Arlene Carboni, told the city that if it held a hearing on the issue, she would gather hundreds of area residents to support the Church. The hearing was never held and the city allowed construction to begin.
Several of those supportive neighbors came to the Ensley Branch building's dedication service Dec. 20, 1987. During that meeting Mrs. Carboni spoke for them when she said, "How the angels of God are rejoicing that another group of Christian people can gather together. I hope every time the doors are opened, this auditorium will be filled."
It was filled to overflowing for the dedication. Before offering the dedicatory prayer, Elder Rex D. Pinegar of the First Quorum of the Seventy and president of the North American Southeast Area congratulated the branch for its faith. "Here is a building that represents your commitment to the Lord," he said. "When you see it you will see it as a symbol of your dedication to the Lord."
It was a memorable day for the Ensley Branch, and emotions flowed freely as members looked around in joyous disbelief at their new surrounding. Prayers were filled with repeated thanks to their Father in Heaven, and branch members testified that it was only through His help that they were now meeting in this new building.
The faith and dedication of the members in this unique branch continues to bear fruit. The new chapel is full each week for sacrament meeting.
And the Ensley Branch continues to prove that yes, indeed, it has worked.